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Taliban, US form joint working groups on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

Feb 10, 2019

The Taliban and the US have formed joint working groups to finalize details of a draft agreement, including the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and a guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for terror attacks against the US and its allies, a senior Taliban official told Arab News on Saturday.

Peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Qatar last month ended with signs of progress toward the withdrawal of thousands of foreign troops from Afghanistan and an end to more than 17 years of war.

Russia hosted peace talks in Moscow between the Taliban and opposition Afghan politicians.

Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, told Arab News that the working groups would meet in a week or two to prepare reports for the next round of talks in Doha, to be held later this month. The outgoing head of the Taliban political office, Sher Abbas Stanikzai, said the next meeting was scheduled for Feb. 25.

“We have been demanding complete withdrawal of all foreign forces, which was an important issue for us,” he told Arab News. “The second issue was related to American concerns that Afghan soil should not be used for terrorism against them in the future.

“Both sides agreed to form joint working groups. So we are satisfied about the outcome of the talks in the sense as we will be working on the two issues – troops withdrawal and to counter the terrorism threat in the future – and the committees will draft the agreement and explore ways for implementation of the agreements.”

The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until late 2001 but were ousted by US-backed Afghan forces for harboring Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The group has since been fighting to drive out foreign forces and defeat what it considers a foreign-backed government in Kabul.

But the fighting has spread to most Afghan regions, with thousands of people killed every year.

Shaheen was asked why the Taliban was not yielding to calls for a cease-fire, and replied that other matters needed to be resolved first.

“We are now discussing withdrawal of foreign troops. We have not yet reached any understanding on this issue. Other issues will be discussed after we reached agreement on the withdrawal of the foreign troops. When we decide the external aspect of the problem, then we will focus on other issues.”

The Taliban last week rejected a suggestion from US President Donald Trump of a US focus on counter-terrorism after the troop drawdown.

“We have clearly stated in our meetings that all troops, which means all categories and under any name, stationed in Afghanistan, will leave,” Shaheen said.

The Taliban spokesman also clarified remarks by senior Taliban negotiator Abdul Salam Hanafi that the US had agreed to call back half of its 14,000 troops by the end of April, saying there was no agreed time frame.

He said Hanafi had been referring to US media reports which suggested that half of the troops would be gone by May.

“There is no agreed timetable for the withdrawal of the American forces. It depends on the US side whether it withdraws or not ... we are working on options to agree on a timetable. We will work on it in the near future and we will determine a timetable.”

Shaheen also said the Taliban did not intend to abolish Afghan security forces, like the national army or police, but would reform them so they could defend and protect the nation.

When asked about the remarks by the Taliban chief negotiator to abolish the constitution, Shaheen said: “Our opinion is that the constitution was drafted and approved under the shadow of the American B-52 bomber planes. So we want a constitution drafted in an environment of freedom.

All Afghan ulema and scholars should debate and finalize a draft and the

constitution should be Islamic as we are 100 percent Muslim in Afghanistan, so we will keep in mind its Islamic and Afghan values which reflect the values of our society.

“We do not say that we do not accept the constitution. Our opinion is that the constitution is a necessity for the society and we accept its importance and it should be [drafted] in an environment of freedom.”

He said all participants in Moscow had unanimously called for the withdrawal of foreign forces and agreed the system in Afghanistan should be Islamic.

“The conference was important in the sense that the participants collectively made these two demands so I consider it an important development. This is also important, that all Afghans agreed on important issues only in two days.”

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